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Author: Mark Brown
Date: 01-17-2000

Nobody Does It Bette-r

You know, these little girls come along with their multi-octave voices and their fancy producers and their music-executive husbands and their little miniskirts and have the nerve--the unmitigated gall--to call themselves "divas."

"What can I say? I have nothing to say," shrugs Bette Midler. "Let them all call themselves divas. I just don't care."

"I Never Talk ToStrangers" (with Tom Waits) "You're My FavoriteWaste Of Time" "I'm Beautiful" Now that's a diva attitude. Then again, the Divine One earned hers, whereas these pretenders try to aspire to a status that they just haven't earned yet.

Ms. Midler, perhaps, can give them a lesson in earning it. Amazingly, after four Grammys, four Golden Globes, two Emmys, and two shots at the Oscar, Midler feels that, well, she could have tried a little harder. She's known for her music, and she's picked some great pieces to cover, including little-known songs by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Marshall Crenshaw, and more. But still...

"Sometimes I kinda annoy myself," she admits, dead serious. "Sometimes I wish I had played it a different way. I sorta wish I had...oh, I don't know. It just feels like it's very diverse. I don't have that much success in records. My records have always been very, very, very spotty."

Because she's skipped all over the map, she doesn't feel like she's had that one great album that would seal her place in history as a musician. It's a weird take on her music, because she hasn't had mere songs--she's had tunes like "The Rose" and "Wind Beneath My Wings" that have become anthems and personal touchstones for some fans. But she has a point; because of her
image, her good taste in music gets ignored.

"I'm afraid it does. But it's okay. It's all right. You can't control everything. I have a lot on my plate," she says, sounding like she's trying to convince herself. "And I've been in every bin there is to be in.

"Oh yes, I've had the hits. But I haven't sold records like a lot of these women, like Madonna, for instance. Or half a dozen others--now Celine Dion and those girls," she continues. "I just don't make those kinds of records. I can't say I didn't have any interest; I love music and I love to sell
records. Who doesn't love to sell records? But I've always sung what I've always sung. The few times I've put my toe in different kinds of music, I've been kinda slapped down for it. So I don't know. It's very strange. My last record [Bathhouse Betty] went gold and it was very similar to the kind of record I used to do when I started out. It was all over the place."

And "all over the place" is as good a description as any for a career that includes everything from bathhouse gigs with Barry Manilow to neurotic comedies with Woody Allen to New York club credibility with Tom Waits.

"You know what? I'm probably the last of the entertainers," Midler muses. "I'm the last one who sings and dances and tells jokes all in one show. So I shouldn't crab. It's what I chose to do and it's what I enjoy doing. If people choose to put me in one place as opposed to another, so be it. I've never really codified it. I never really said what it was because I never really knew what it was. It was just me. And I'm here all by myself."

Indeed. And for such a bawdy, bigger-than-life persona, she's the first to admit she's actually a little bit boring. She's never had the big comeback album/ film/ special because she's never really gone away or flopped. She's never needed a comeback. "I've always worked. My tolerance for boredom is very low," she says. "Why? Are you suggesting I step down?"

Even VH1's attempt to dig a little dirt turned up nothing. "They did a Behind The Music on me and I was very embarrassed that there was very little scandal," she quips. "There was no scandal. The worst thing was that I had a bad review. People were laughing at me."

Midler's interests rotate--a movie, then an album, then a tour, then an HBO special...then it starts all over again. "It's really what comes up, it's what's in the pipeline. I don't have a manager; I haven't had a manager for 20 years. I think if I did have a manager it would be a little more coherent. But because I fly by the seat of my pants, it has that feeling to it. It's a little messy. It's sloppy but it's well-meaning; what can I say?"

And it's not all by choice. "The truth is that movie scripts are really hard to come by," Midler continues. "When you do get them, often they're troubled; they need a lot of work. That's a part of my career where I'm really treading water because it's so hard; there's so little out there for women my age."

Wait a minute; wasn't the success of The First Wives Club supposed to open up Hollywood to older women again? "Huh!" Midler snorts, back in full diva mode. "People love to jump to conclusions. I've been at it so long that I've never jumped to any conclusion. One hit does not make a trend. It was funny because as big a hit as that was, the town was determined to say it was a fluke. And that's what they decided they were gonna say, that's what they said, and that's how they behaved."

So all this talk of an impending sequel is...

"Nope," Midler answers. "Sherry Lansing has been trying for years. It's not happening."

For all her "no movies" talk, Midler stars in plenty of them. Her latest, Isn't She Great?, hits the theaters on Super Bowl weekend. It's a biography of Valley Of The Dolls writer Jacqueline Susann, with Midler in the starring role.

"[My co-star] Stockard Channing pretty much steals the show," Midler says humbly. "I liked it; I think it's one of the best scripts I've ever read. I was surprised they didn't put it out at Labor Day, but they were determined to put it out on this date. It's someplace for the ladies to go on Super
Bowl weekend."

Hers seems almost a schizophrenic existence: Midler disappears for months or years on end, quietly working on projects such as the New York Restoration Project, her initiative to clean up parks. And it's not just vanity work--she actually gets out there and raises funds to clean the parks. More surprisingly, she actually gets out there and cleans 'em herself. "It's a real time-sink. That's what I do when I'm not doing this. When you don't see me being public, I'm trying to raise funds to pick up garbage and that sort of thing."

And then every few years, it's suddenly all Bette, all the time. "Oh my God, is it really? Isn't that funny, because I don't really feel like that," she declares. "I don't read the papers or the interviews or any of it. I just go along. I have no idea what the ripple effect of it is."

And if you missed the Divine Miss Millennium Tour, it may be a long, long time before you get another chance. "This is a long time without my family, and I don't think I'm gonna go much longer. And I don't think I'm gonna do it again," Midler reveals. "I'd like to be around for those teenage years. I hear they're pretty special."

So after her Isn't She Great? publicity chores are out of the way, Midler's going underground again. But she never stays away for very long. "I've never had a problem with work. I'm always happy to go into it, and I'm always happy when it's over. I'm always happy to start and always happy to finish," she says. "I've been at it a long time and have always had those reserves. I've always known how it's done and always had wonderful people to help me. If I have even a germ of an idea, I know that I have enough staff and help to get it on its feet and get it out and have it be interesting, even if not utterly and completely successful. It's always at least interesting."

Spoken like a true diva.